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University Perspective – Esri Canada Centres of Excellence

Canadian students are busy getting ready for the start of a brand new school year. And at six schools across Canada, geography programs are preparing to integrate a brand new collaboration into their programs – the Esri Canada Centres of Excellence (ECCE).

Currrently, the participating schools are: University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, McMaster University, University of Waterloo, McGill University, and a joint centre between Dalhousie University and Nova Scotia Community College, Centre of Geographic Sciences. GoGeomatics Canada caught up with representatives from three of those schools to get their insight into how the ECCEs will be integrated into their programs, the use of new technology, how they see the Canadian geomatics community growing, and more. To read our first interview with Esri Canada’s Dr. Brent Hall, click here.

ESRi Canada

GoGeomatics thanks the following people for participating in this interview:

Patrick DeLuca (GISP) – Systems Administrator and Lecturer, School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University

Suzana Dragicevic – Professor, Spatial Analysis and Modelling Laboratory, Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University

Rob Feick – Associate Professor, School of Planning, University of Waterloo

GoGeomatics: What impact do you foresee the Esri GIS Centre of Excellence bringing to your school, and your GIS programs?

Patrick DeLuca, McMaster: The Esri Canada Centre of Excellence (ECCE) will have a positive impact, with several benefits both immediate and in the future. It will bring more visibility to the School of Geography and Earth Sciences within McMaster University, it will enhance the School’s reputation with regards to GIS, and improve our students’ career networking opportunities. I envision this aiding in student recruitment at both the undergraduate and graduate levels as well.

There is also the potential for collaboration with the other ECCEs in both teaching and research opportunities. There is access to greater resources for teaching and the development of apps (for example, access to the Esri Developer Network and Esri’s developers). We have had a long tradition of developing software and tools that are built with Esri Technology, and this will only be enhanced with this collaboration. Finally, our students will have improved access to Esri Canada’s instructor-led courses and Conferences.

Suzana Dragicevic, SFU: The Esri Centre of Excellence (ECCE) at Simon Fraser University (SFU) will allow our students to gain more access to Esri products and services. In addition, the availability of scholarships, competitions and conferences will also benefit our students. The ECCE will allow us to further integrate the Esri suite of products with other open source and commercial software that we use in our teaching and research for graduate and undergraduate students. The Esri suite of products will allow us to teach and conduct research with a common platform.

Robert Feick, Waterloo: I see the Centre of Excellence providing at least two types of benefits to our students and GIS faculty members in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment. First, it will offer new GIS software development resources for graduate and senior undergraduate students in our GIS research labs to build and test new GIS applications and to advance spatial analysis research.  Second, I expect that we will see new avenues for sharing experiences regarding GIS instruction and research among the six Centres of Excellence sites. As GIS has become almost universal as both a technology and an approach to problem-solving in recent years, learning from each other has become more important in higher education.

GoGeomatics: How will the Centre of Excellence be integrated into your programs and courses?

Patrick DeLuca, McMaster: There are a few immediate things that I can think of. First, Esri Canada plans on running a series of Webex presentations in topics such as Python, Javascript, R, mcmasterGeodatabase, City Engine, etc. Some of these will be utilized directly in our courses. For example, in our “Special Topics in GIS” course this coming winter term, I can foresee incorporating the Javascript and City Engine presentations as part of that course. The Python webex presentation will be included in our new “GIS Programming” course taught for the first time by Dr. Darren Scott. Also, Esri Instructor-led courses for students and faculty are available and I can foresee some graduate students (along with some Faculty and staff) making use of those to further their studies.

Also, Esri Canada is hosting an App challenge for all ECCEs to participate in, so we will have a team in that competition. We will also be hosting an in-house ESRI Young Scholar competition, the winner of which will be forwarded to Esri Canada’s main competition.

Suzana Dragicevic, SFU: There are two main GIS programs we offer at SFU. The first is the Certificate in Spatial Information Systems which is managed entirely within the geography department. The second is a Major in GIScience that is offered jointly between the department of computer science and the department of geography. In all of these programs and courses, we emphasize strong theoretical foundations and hands-on data analysis exposure to all students. The Center of Excellence will further facilitate the link between cutting edge research we do at SFU in the field of Spatial Information Sciences, software development, and GIS applications to teaching a suite of graduate and undergraduate courses.

Robert Feick, Waterloo: GIS instruction and research at Waterloo is concentrated in the Department of Geography and Environment Management (GEM) and the School of Planning (SOP). We are already using some of Esri Canada’s instructional materials to help our GIS students build skills in areas such as Python scripting and Web-GIS API development. We foresee the ECCE opening new doors for joint research with Esri as well as other government and non-government partners.  My colleague Peter Johnson and I, for example, recently collaborated with Esri Canada on usability testing of mobile GIS software that allows errors in a local government’s spatial data to be logged in the field by employees or potentially any interested citizen.

GoGeomatics: How does the use of Esri technology influence your use of other technologies, like Google and Open Source products?

Patrick DeLuca, McMaster: Our default position is to use Esri technology, but if the use case is there for open source and Google then we certainly use it.  I can think of examples where researchers have used GRASS, for instance, for hydrology because there are more hydrological models available there than in ArcGIS.

Suzana Dragicevic, SFU: My research and teaching make use of many open geospatial simon fraserdata sets, such as from DataBC. Other sources include open municipal data, census data from Statistics Canada, and all others keen to donate datasets for our academic work. These are crucial in documenting the existing conditions of society and environment at various points of time. Most of my work is in simulation modeling, so we start from what is known and project the processes into future conditions. Having that starting data sets in an accessible and accurate form is critical to the models I develop. In that regard, open source products and software tools will be complemented with Esri technologies to make more reliable output products.

GoGeomatics: How do you see private industry contributing to education and career training, both now and in the future?

Patrick DeLuca, McMaster: I think private industry can play a big role in helping to provide experiential learning opportunities for students. These can be through co-operative education employment or internships, either for pay or course credit. For example, we have a pretty successful internship program established here at McMaster where students earn 3 units of course credit for 10 hours of work per week during the term. To date, all of them have been excellent experiences for students, though most of them have been with public sector agencies. One of the other benefits of the ECCE agreement is that there will be internship and/or co-op opportunities at Esri Canada.

Suzana Dragicevic, SFU: The private industry and universities are part of the same system, and hence it is important that collaborations are formed. Students trained at universities enter the workforce and secure jobs in the private sector. Making that transition easy for our graduate and undergraduate students is one of the benefits of the collaboration.

Robert Feick, Waterloo: I think most of us realize that a person’s education and training, especially in a field as diverse and dynamic aswaterloo GIS, not only spans their career but also involves different contributors at different times. Private firms contribute now to university research, education and training in a variety of ways, such as student scholarships, provision of software or equipment, development of training materials and, through initiatives like the ECCE, facilitating applied research.

GoGeomatics: What changes do you foresee in the application of GIS technology?

Patrick DeLuca, McMaster: I think we’ll see more and more movement to the web, more mobile GIS, and more uses for 3D GIS. Teaching students about how to create an effective web map or app will be really important moving forward. In fact, our current plan is to teach these three topics this coming winter in a course entitled “Advances in Geospatial Technology.”

Suzana Dragicevic, SFU: It is difficult to determine. There are many disciplines already applying GIS technology to their research and teaching work. This will only grow with time as the benefits of the technology is appreciated. The drawback though is that the application of the technology without a solid foundation in the science (GIScience) may lead to misuse and abuse.

GoGeomatics: How do you see the future of geomatics and GIS in Canada?

Patrick DeLuca, McMaster: I think the sky’s the limit with regards to the future of both geomatics and GIS in Canada. If history is anything to go by, GIS and geomatics will continue to evolve with advances in technology and functionality. If we look at industry uptake of GIS and geomatics, we have seen more and more cases for it. I expect that this uptake will continue into the future. It is amazing to me how many different ways, and in how many different industries, GIS/geomatics can be applied in Canada and currently it is not, or it is used at a very low level.

Suzana Dragicevic, SFU: The proliferation of geospatial data in consumer products has made GIS literacy a much needed aspect of the technology. Without it, there can be the danger of misuse and abuse. Geographic data literacy will enable data collectors, managers, and end users to appreciate the potential and pitfalls of the data being consumed. The availability of accurate data and affordable software tools are also key considerations. A better informed and aware society will make better collective decisions. Society as a whole will benefit.

Robert Feick, Waterloo: Ten years ago, the likelihood that most people would have personal location technology such as a mobile phone, tablet, or even a car with built-in GPS was relatively low. Now, geographic information is much more common, is used in a myriad of ways that were not anticipated or seen to be feasible, and is increasingly expected to be available and accurate whenever needed. Take my crystal ball projections with at least a grain of salt since I don’t remember predicting any of these developments a decade ago. As a sector, we will likely see recent trends, such as more open government data and greater citizen comfort in creating and using geographic information, continue to develop. Within Canada, we have enormous opportunities to contribute to resolving a host of complex social and environmental issues such as habitat loss, development of “smart” cities, urban mobility and transportation, and alternative energy production to name a few. This is exciting, but also points to the need for the geomatics and GIS community to combine our expertise with knowledge from other domains.

GoGeomatics would like to once again express our thanks to Patrick DeLuca, Suzana Dragicevic, and Robert Feick for participating in this interview, and giving us some more insight into this exciting new program. We’ll be checking in on how the ECCE’s are progressing over the next year.

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